The Quest for the Holy Grail and Death of King Arthur is an illuminated manuscript of tales of the search by knights of the mythical king Arthur's round table for a sacred vessel associated with Christ and King Arthur's death. It was completed somewhere in central France on July 4, 1470, by the scribe Micheau Gonnot for Jacques d'Armagnac (1433-1477), Duke of Nemours, and was illuminated by Evard d'Espinques. Its 130 miniatures depict chivalric adventures, including dozens of pitched battles between armies and tournament contests between knights.
Although we do not know where the manuscript was made, we know that it was destined for Jacques d'Armagnac's residence at Castres in Languedoc. It is the last volume of an enormous compilation of Arthurian tales that originally occupied four volumes, the first of which disappeared in the sixteenth century. The three surviving volumes together bear the shelfmark MS fr. 112 at the Bibliothèque nationale de France.
A Frontispiece that Sets the Stage
The manuscript opens with a large miniature divided into four scenes that depict the Crucifixion of Jesus, King Arthur presenting Lancelot to a lady, the meeting of Lancelot and Galahad, and Lancelot knighting Galahad (fol. 1r). This presents a series of events that establishes the Christian context of Galahad's quest, one that he enters after asking his estranged father, Lancelot, to knight him.
Evard d'Espinques, the Duke's Illuminator
Evard d'Espinques, originally from northern Germany, arrived in Paris as a young man around 1430 intending to learn the art of manuscript illumination in the city best known for the art. He was employed by Jacques d'Armagnac on an annual stipend beginning in 1461 and illuminated not only the multi-volumed work of which the Quest and Death is a part but also yet another compilation of Arthurian material (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS fr. 116).
Micheau Gonnot, the Duke's Scribe
The text comprises the Quest narrative (fols. 1r-182r) and the legend concerning the death of King Arthur (fols. 182r-233r), both presented in a special version compiled by the manuscript's scribe, Micheau (or Michel) Gonnot, for Jacques d'Armagnac. Unique in the French tradition is the inclusion of an episode relating the death of King Mark taken from the Tristan legend (fols. 160r-163r).
The script is French Bâtarde, especially favored in the fifteenth century for vernacular texts. Gonnet made a few corrections to his text, but another scribe also intervened. The running title of the volume—the last book of Sir Lancelot of the Lake—places it in the context of the four-volume anthology of Arthurian material carefully selected for Jacques.
A Distinguished Patron of Manuscript Art
Jacques d'Armagnac is remembered in history for his patronage of illuminated manuscripts and for having been beheaded in 1477 for rebelling against the French crown. His patronage of the greatest French illuminators active in fifteenth-century France is legendary, as is his interest in the Arthurian legends and illuminated manuscripts telling those tales.
Dispersal of a Great Library
Upon Jacques's death, his library was dispersed. The Quest and Death volume came into the possession of the Montjehan family. It was in the possession of Charles III (1490-1527), Duke of Bourbon, before entering the French royal library under Francis I (1494-1547), King of France. The royal library was absorbed in 1792 by the newly founded Bibliothèque nationale (now Bibliothèque nationale de France). Its current binding dates from 1973.